Across the Bay

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Sham Government

Michael Young discusses the latest government maneuverings and options in Lebanon, including the Maronite Patriarch's Sfeir recent blunder:

Karami must either set up a government now, even if it is not one of national unity, or, preferably, step down and make room for the establishment of a neutral government acceptable to all sides.

The Fitzgerald report should only reinforce this necessity. Anything negative about the behavior of the government and the security services it oversees will all but disqualify Karami's return to office. Of course, the pro-Syrians in the regime, particularly President Emile Lahoud, may ignore this, as they did the estimated one million protestors two Mondays ago, but the tide will slowly turn against them. If a negative UN report fuses with the 40-day anniversary of Hariri's murder and more bombs around Lebanon, one might gradually see the formation of a perfect storm of recrimination.

Lahoud and Syria's supporters have failed to explain why a neutral government is unacceptable. Karami insists on a national unity government, and it's unfortunate that Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir was willing to consider the idea. He backtracked somewhat by setting as a condition that half the Cabinet seats must go to the opposition. But any participation is a mistake: bargaining over portfolios may divide opposition politicians and will turn Lahoud into a godfather of the transitional order. This would only legitimize him and allow him more leeway to negotiate a flexible timetable for a Syrian departure.

Sfeir should, instead, put his weight exclusively behind the neutral government proposal, something he's repeatedly called for. The UN report, assuming it is critical, will allow him to re-emphasize that necessity and permanently eliminate the national unity alternative, which is a sham.

You could tell that the Patriarch erred when the insufferable Farouq al-Sharaa praised his initial stance. Never a good sign, especially when the rest of Sharaa's statements (about ceasing the accusations about Hariri's murder) were nothing short of a threat.

The reason is simple: Lahoud and his secret service goons are really Syria's main foothold in the country. An international investigation that will point the finger at them cannot be good (especially now that a Lebanese judge assigned with the investigation has resigned. It was said that evidence was withheld from him, and that he was pressured to prosecute Jumblat)! That's why the Syrians have been fighting it tooth and nail (also, remember Hizbullah's Arab committee initiative). The Arab League reacted predictably, and it was left to Kofi Annan to address the league telling them that further international investigation will be needed. In fact, the most relevant speeches at the summit were made by Annan and Chirac, who relayed a message from the EU and repeated the basic demands of full Syrian withdrawal before the elections, which the EU stressed should take place on time, and the full independence and sovereignty of Lebanon. He also added that EU election monitors will be sent to help. Chirac also said that "those who would say that anarchy and killings will return to Lebanon without a Syrian presence should be quickly unmasked and condemned." David Satterfield echoed that message: "The international community will hold responsible all those involved -- individuals, organizations and governments."

The Syrians, as Michael pointed out, are trying to stall their final withdrawal until after the elections. Annan rejected a set of conditions in relation to the full implementation of 1559, brought to him by Bashar at the Arab summit. Mubarak, who met with Chirac, also told Assad that a firm timetable should be put out in a week, and that the withdrawal should be done before the elections. The delay, and the securing of Lahoud and the security chiefs, are the main immediate concerns for the Syrians. They're trying to muscle the opposition with violence (two bombings so far in Christian areas) in order to force it to join the "national unity" government.

The opposition has not adopted Sfeir's earlier stance, and it seems from this story that Sfeir has dumped his former initiative and is back on the same page with Jumblat (and the proposal of a small cabinet of elder statesmen echoes Michael's proposal). After a couple of intermediaries met with Sfeir and Jumblat, it was said that both Sfeir and Jumblat had similar responses holding on to the option of a neutral government, and not a national unity one. The an-Nahar story shares Michael's concerns that the ultimate goal of this stalling is to cancel the May elections, and this one from Naharnet talks about a plot to extend the life of the current Parliament for another three years. That's Syria's aim, it seems, in order to maintain its goons in place, as a new, freely elected parliament, will do away with Lahoud and the security chiefs (thereby further isolating Hizbullah) and costing Syria its main foothold in the country.

Joshua Landis recently wrote to me that Bashar has painted himself as the Geronimo of Arabism, and is into this with both arms. How can he let go? He has no option but to fight (dirty) to the end. Let's see what that means. Dick Cheney said"it's not clear yet they will do what they need to do." "Syria is pretty isolated at this point," he added. Considering what Annan, Chirac, and Mubarak said, (not to mention King Abdullah's bombshell about Syria encouraging "Palestinian activists to carry out terror attacks against Israel, trying to divert attention from the situation in Lebanon and Syria,") I'd say that Cheney's assessment is rather correct (see also this LA Times article)! That Geronimo analogy is sounding more and more apt, and that may mean that an inevitable showdown lies ahead.